Rifts emerge in new council amid GSO police scandal
Compared to, say, Gandhi’s hunger strike or the Woolworth Sit-ins, the protest staged by two new members of the Greensboro City Council on Dec. 27 might not have looked like much.
In fact, it was more of a sit-out than a sit-in. Trudy Wade and Mary Rakestraw planted themselves in the main council chambers during a 40-minute closed session to demonstrate their displeasure with the tightlipped city government. The two renegades loitered on the dais during their colleagues’ backroom discussion, happily taking questions from reporters.
“I think the public deserves to know this information,” Wade said. “And I think the public deserves to hear our discussion.”
Mayor Yvonne Johnson called the special meeting to discuss whether to release details of an alleged sexual assault on Dec. 14 by three on-duty police officers. The complainant, whose name has not been released, was also a police officer who was off duty at the time. The council ultimately voted unanimously to release the time, date, location and description of the assault, information that had been under wraps because the incident involved city personnel and had been reported to internal affairs.
On Dec. 18, the police department announced the suspension with pay of three officers: Sgt. AS Wallace, 43, Officer JO LeGrand, 37, and Officer CS Stevens, 42. Although police assigned the case to criminal investigations, they refused to publish the any of the details that are public record under state law. City Manager Mitchell Johnson used personnel confidentiality laws to justify that decision.
“I would say I strongly disagree that this has anything to do with stonewalling,” Johnson said.
Mike Barber joined Wade and Rakestraw in their bid to turn the meeting into a forum on government transparency.
“Our question should not always be, ‘How should we be limiting what we release,'” he said. “I’m very disappointed that we keep having this discussion.”
At-large Representative Robbie Perkins flung his own testy accusation at the three former county commissioners after they suggested changing the chain of command to have the legal staff report directly to council.
“It seems like a lot of these issues we’re discussing are an attempt to turn this into the county commission,” he said.
Before the council voted to enter closed session, Wade made a motion to discuss the case in open session. Barber, Rakestraw and Sandra Anderson-Groat voted for the public discussion, but fell one vote shy.
All the council members except Wade and Rakestraw voted to enter closed session on a subsequent motion. After the closed session, the council released the information.
District 1 Representative Dianne Bellamy-Small, who voted with the rest of council to make the facts public, expressed misgivings about the decision.
“We need to be very careful in trying to respond to media’s need,” Bellamy-Small said. “We run a good government here and we demand a lot from our employees. I don’t want to see us start nitpicking every time someone is alleged to have made a mistake.”
Barber reminded Bellamy-Small and the rest of council that the alleged episode involved more than a simple policy violation.
“There is an entire other arm in that this is a criminal matter,” Barber said, “which relates to a whole other level of rules.”
The News & Record filed a lawsuit a few hours before the meeting, suing the city for violating open records laws. Barber said the council did not discuss the lawsuit in the closed session.
After the meeting, Assistant Police Chief Gary Hastings held a brief press conference. The police department will conduct an administrative investigation after the criminal investigation, he said.
The alleged incident occurred after the on-duty officers picked up the off-duty officer and an acquaintance near Four Seasons Mall sometime between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Only the officer, who is female, reported sexual assault.
Last week’s meeting was the first in recent memory in which council members refused to enter closed session. The embargo did two things to the council – it inaugurated a new, argumentative tone and introduced a new power bloc of former county commissioners.
After the meeting, Barber avoided questions about the legality of the city’s initial position.
“A much bigger issue,” Barber said, “is our inability to manage the disbursement of information to the media and the public.”
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